Gerry Hopkinson
Oct 20, 2022

Is fast fashion still in vogue? Shein's reputational issues affect the whole sector

Fast fashion brand Shein has hit the headlines in the wake of the documentary 'Untold: Inside the Shein Machine', which indicated employee working conditions in some of its factories abroad were worryingly unsafe and ‘exploitative’.

Is fast fashion still in vogue? Shein's reputational issues affect the whole sector

A spokesperson for the online fashion brand, which is valued at £76.5bn, said it was "very concerned" about the claims made in the documentary and was investigating any breach of working conditions by suppliers.

It is not only the brand that has been impacted reputationally. Some fashion influencers have continued to promote Shein’s products despite the negative attention, leading them to be called out as being ‘tone deaf’.

Of course, it is important to set Shein’s story in the context of a fast fashion sector that has been drawing fire for years. Employee working conditions remain a perennial issue, but concerns about greenwashing and environmental claims not standing up to scrutiny have also hit these brands hard.

Boohoo has been trying to improve its working conditions in recent years but has still been criticised for not going far enough. Meanwhile, PYT has also been hit with reputational issues surrounding workers’ conditions within its supply chain, alongside accusations of greenwashing.

What the documentary and its subsequent fallout has highlighted to me is the growing demand for brands to be all things to all people. There is and always will be a place in the market for low-cost clothing and manufacturing. But balancing the challenges of cost and ethics has never been harder. 

Despite this growing challenge, it is useful to look at the brands that are getting it right. Just look at Ikea – it recognises that the principle of creating affordable goods for everyone is laudable, but it also recognises that this process must be sustainable and able to bear scrutiny.

As we enter into an economic period where price and affordability will become paramount, brands need to think very carefully about their supply chains and the promises they make. If there is a credibility gap, not only will this erode trust and reputation, but it will also erode market share and long-term value too.

And then there’s the troubling issue of influencers. Brands work with influencers because they know they will drive traffic and sales, allowing them to tap into the desired target market via an eager fanbase. The issue arises when these influencers get it wrong – be it in timing, content or tone. Suddenly, it becomes highly undesirable for these influencers to act as a ‘gateway’ to a brand – and the negatives quickly outweigh the positives.

Shein certainly has a battle on its hands right now, but it is not alone. The fast fashion sector must look closely and make sure that its mission statements and ambitious claims stand up to the highest scrutiny. Not simply to the media, but to a public that increasingly gives a damn about how their brands behave.

Gerry Hopkinson is chief executive at Selbey Labs


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